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Yad Vashem opens art exhibition in shadow of Oct. 7 massacre

“Bigger Than Me” features oil paintings and sketches by artist Shai Azoulay.

Israeli artist Shai Azoulay next to one of his works from the "Bigger Than Me" exhibition. Credit: Yad Vashem.
Israeli artist Shai Azoulay next to one of his works from the "Bigger Than Me" exhibition. Credit: Yad Vashem.

An art exhibition is debuting Thursday at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, two days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as the memory of the Shoah is fresh on the minds of Israelis following the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

The exhibition, titled “Bigger Than Me,” features six oil paintings and some 10 additional sketches by the Israeli artist Shai Azoulay. It has been given added significance following the Hamas massacre, the worst single-day attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

“The Hamas pogrom revived for us all the Holocaust,” Azoulay told JNS. “Everything took on tragic relevance.”

The exhibition, which was created over the last month and half, is the first time Yad Vashem is displaying artwork that was not created by Holocaust victims or survivors and does not consist of art that depict the atrocities of the Shoah.

Azoulay, who does not have family who were murdered in the Holocaust, is the first artist to participate in Yad Vashem’s Residency Cultural Program.

“In the beginning, I was hesitant to take on this project, I wasn’t sure in what way as an artist I could portray the memory of the Holocaust,” he said.

“Furthermore, the national tragedy of October 7 paralyzed me. I felt unable to paint and incapable of adequately expressing myself during this horrific time of sadness for the Jewish people. In a manner of speaking, this initiative with Yad Vashem evoked something powerful within me, it brought me back to paint; it brought me back to life.”

Shai Azoulay’s interpretation of the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem. Credit: Yad Vashem.

One of Azoulay’s paintings in the exhibition is his artistic interpretation of the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem. His encounter with the victims’ faces in the Hall draws him up into a vortex, a black hole beyond the laws of gravity where he floats hand in hand with his wife, in a nod to world-renowned artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

Shai Azoulay at Yad Vashem’s Museum of Holocaust Art in Jerusalem, January 2024. Credit: Yad Vashem.

National trauma

Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, the exhibition’s curator, said, “The artworks beckon us to join in a quest in search of how we today connect to the memory of the Holocaust and its impact on our collective Jewish identity.

“The events of October 7 were so traumatic that they ignited the national trauma of the Holocaust,” she told JNS. “It is clear that in its scope and sheer numbers of the tragedy there is no comparison, but in terms of the sadism, the determination to destroy and the pain there is a reference here to the ultimate tragedy of the Jewish people.

“It also shows how the Holocaust is relevant to our times as well,” Moreh-Rosenberg said.

The exhibition’s name, “Bigger Than Me,” reflects the artist’s initial trepidation that he had “stepped into shoes that were several sizes too big for him,” due to both the enormity of the Holocaust and the weight of memory as well as a sense of disconnection to the Shoah in light of the fact that his Sephardic family’s heritage is not directly related to the mass murder committed by the Germans and their helpers.

“The exhibition is not just a remarkable display of art, but a profound testament to the evolving nature of Holocaust remembrance,” said Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan. “Azoulay’s journey of discovery as he found his connection to the Holocaust mirrors the path future generations will tread in a world without direct ties to Holocaust survivors.

“His work demonstrates that … the connection persists, reminding us that the legacy of the Holocaust is not only historical but is deeply personal for us all.”

The exhibition will be on display in Yad Vashem’s Museum of Holocaust Art on the Mount of Remembrance through Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed this year on May 5-6.

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